“Don’t mess up with my right of publicity”: celebrities will not forgive it!

Another prestigious brand sued by a celebrity’s family for using its name without asking for the authorization! After Burberry sued by Humphrey Bogart’s heirs in the United States for using an image of the actor wearing the iconic trench in the movie Casablanca on its website, and Mattel sued by the Frida Kahlo Foundation in Mexico for marketing the Frida Kahlo Barbie, it is now the turn of Ferrari sued by the family of Steve McQueen before theSuperior Court of Los Angeles. 





The heirs of the actor sued the Italian car house for using the name “McQueen” on a model made to celebrate the 70th anniversary (1947-2017) of the brand. In particular, as part of the celebrations of his anniversary, Ferrari produced 70 special colors, each linked to a historical model of the brand and it dedicated to McQueen the number 32, brown, just like the Berlinetta Lusso 250 GT used by the actor. Further, Ferrari advertised the vehicle online and distributed marketing material that incorporated McQueen’s pictures.

According to the actor’s heirs, the use of McQueen’s name and image in connection to Ferrari’s vehicle “creates the false perception that the car has been authorized by the family and that its design and details make it an authentic ‘McQueen’ car, deserving of the price premium and value that accrues to licensed and authentic McQueen cars and products”. In fact, the family claims that anything associated with the deceased movie legend – especially cars – drives value and brings the example of a 1970 Porsche 917K featured in the McQueen film Le Mans that auctioned for over $14 million in 2017.

Therefore, “using the name of the actor inappropriately, the Maranello manufacturer has achieved significant sales and profits”. With claims of trademark infringement, false endorsement and misappropriation of the right of publicity, the McQueen’s heirs sought an injunction against Ferrari’s McQueen marketing material, an award of all profits gained from the model sales, the destruction of all marketing, advertising, or promotional materials depicting Steve McQueen’s name, photograph or likeness and $ 3 million in damages.

In building their case, McQueen’s heirs argue that back in 2011 they personally visited Ferrari plants to express their interest in a special McQueen car and that on that occasion they made expressly clear that this would have required the family’s approval. Thus, they were surprised when in 2017 they learned, that Ferrari had, without notice or authorization, begun marketing and selling a special edition Ferrari entitled “The McQueen”.

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, Ferrari renamed the model “The Actor”, but – in the view of McQueen’s heirs – this was not enough to settle the matter. Perhaps a role was played by the relationship between the McQueen family and other car companies, among which Ford, which used both the heirs as testimonial (the grandson of the actor, Molly McQueen) and the name of the actor for the new Mustang Bullit, of course paying for it.

The case is now before the Superior Court of Los Angeles and it is not to be excluded that, as common in cases involving famous brands and celebrities, will end up with a transaction between the parties, whose terms will never be disclosed to the public. However, the lesson is that celebrities do not forgive unauthorized use of their name or image, and that, if you plan to do it, sooner or later you will have to pay for it!

If you would like to know more about the right of publicity in Italy and its exceptions, please contact elena.varese@dlapiper.com and valentina.mazza@dlapiper.com.